As an initiation rite into Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity, four pledges must spend a night in Garth Manor, twelve years to the day after the previous resident murdered his entire family. Two of the pledges, Marti and Jeff, ignore the rumors that the now-deserted mansion is haunted by a crazed killer, until, one by one, members of their group mysteriously disappear. Could this be a part of a fraternity prank ...or is a demented former tenant seeking revenge? (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
Somewhere, deep in the annals of term papers and unpublished dissertations, some well-intentioned soul probably made a meaningful cultural connection between the rise of sorority/fraternity-themed movies and slasher films during the early 1980s. Perhaps Baby Boomers were excited to look back on their recently bygone college years? Perhaps the decade’s laser focus on social stature reached a boiling point and young audiences wanted to see the mean girls and boys gutted by madmen? Perhaps the very meaning of the Reagan era is hidden behind this meeting of disparate genres. Or maybe John Landis’ Animal House and John Carpenter’s Halloween were both surprise low-budget hits in 1978 and opportunistic filmmakers saw a chance to cash-in on two fads at once? The rituals and hazing practices of frats and sororities were at the center of an even more specific subgenre that included Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train (1980), Larry Steward’s The Initiation (1984), William Fruet’s Killer Party (1986), and Tom DeSimone’s Hell Night (1981, not to be confused with Brian Owens’ Happy Hell Night, 1992).
I’m not exactly sure why Hell Night has remained so popular over the years, because I find it so tragically tedious, even when compared to similarly unimaginative dead teenager movies. DeSimone manages to squeeze some old-fashioned, creepshow atmosphere from the murky, candle-lit location, but he also stretches about 30 minutes of reasonably charming character beats and modest shocks out into an unforgivably long hour and 41 minutes. I assume the enduring fanbase is tied to the fact that it was released to relatively large numbers in the middle of slasher cinema’s biggest year (1981) and was widely available on home video without any major objections from parent groups or other moral gatekeepers. Due to extensive (and very obvious) MPAA cuts, it’s also relatively harmless compared to its most revered and gory contemporaries. The rather tepid R-rating probably made it popular VHS fodder for younger audiences during rowdy slumber parties. There’s also the fact that it stars Linda Blair, whose post-[i]Exorcist[/i] filmography is surprisingly light on horror movies, considering her supposed Scream Queen pedigree. Unfortunately, she’s actually miscast as the semi-virginal nice girl, who survives the ordeal by staying out of the way. As a young adult, Blair tended to excel in rauncier situations, such as the badass vigilante in Danny Steinmann’s Savage Streets (1984). Here, she seems bored with the material, though it should be noted that the entire leading cast is actually very good and does its best to elevate the dreadfully slow interims between scares.
DeSimone continued making Z-grade exploitation (sometimes under the pseudonym Lancer Brooks) and worked in television into the 2000s, but, before Hell Night, he was known almost exclusively for his work directing gay porn. This piece of trivia is probably the most interesting thing about the film, in retrospect. His experience in the field isn’t immediately obvious – especially considering the complete lack of on-screen sex or nudity (only passionate cuddling and...tickling?) – but, upon closer inspection, Hell Night can be most lively when satirizing feminine stereotypes, ogling attractive young bodies (men and women), and, as noted, admiring the cobweb-swept corners of the spooky manor. Had he been unhindered by the obligations of early ‘80s slasher motifs, perhaps DeSimone could’ve made an amusing erotic spoof of the already usually campy old dark house tradition.
As I discussed above, Hell Night had a very healthy life on North American home video, including at least two separate ‘80s VHS releases (from Media Home Entertainment and Video Treasures), as well as simultaneous widescreen DVD and VHS reissues from Anchor Bay in 1999. Scream Factory intended on using original negative film elements for this high definition debut (on any format), but their ‘extensive search’ turned up nothing but a sole, surviving 35mm print. They did what they could with the material, scanning it in 4K, and performing ‘extensive color correction and film restoration to clean up any damage.’ Some short clips were missing and replaced by brief standard definition inserts (which, for the record, have low frame rate problems). Their efforts are presented in 1080p, 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray and the results are pretty good. The major issues all pertain to the quality of the print they scanned. Besides the minor artifacting (white dots, small blips of dirt, sudden bursts of scratchy frames, and a few vertical green lines), there is the matter of crushy black shadows, which is a very common issue for print-based transfers. Details are still pretty lively, even considering the crush, cinematographer Mac Ahlberg’s use of soft focus/diffused lighting, and the modest grain structure. Tight edges, consistent colors (reds are particularly vivid), and well-delineated shapes usually counteract the plush textures and ensure that nothing important is lost in the dark and spooky compositions. This might not be the show-stopping transfer that fans may’ve wanted, but it is certainly a substantial upgrade over SD DVDs.
Hell Night is presented in its original mono sound and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Sound quality is plenty loud and occasionally quite busy for a single channel, low-budget release, but there are notable issues with the bass overwhelming the track, especially wherever music is concerned. This seems to be the result of a bigger problem with flattened dynamic range, but the issue is easily ignored during dialogue-heavy sequences, where the general clarity helps to maintain a sense of consistency. Actual source damage is minimal and mostly crops up in the form of pops or low level fuzz during the quietest scenes. Composer Dan Wyman, who had worked as an orchestrator on John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween, and The Fog (1980), takes a disappointingly classic approach to his score, but I must admit that his mixed symphonic/synthetic motifs add production value to the film.
Commentary with star Linda Blair, director Tom DeSimone, and producers Irwin Yablans & Bruce Cohn Curtis – The only extra (other than trailers) to carry over from the AB DVD is this lively, anecdote-filled track.
Linda Blair: The Beauty of Horror (35:21, HD) – The always (usually) bubbly actress shares stories about her post-Exorcist childhood career, breaking out as a TV movie and exploitation star, and starring in Hell Night. She has very nice things to say about DeSimone, Curtis, and the cast, but doesn’t have the fondest memories of the shoot, which went well over schedule.
Hell Nights with Tom DeSimone (26:57, HD) – The director revisits the film’s Kimberly Crest location and discusses his career in adult films (proudly, I might add), meeting Curtis, developing Hell Night, as well as the challenges of filming.
Peter Barton: Facing Fear (20:50, HD) – The actor talks about his cult-heavy filmography, the ironically autobiographical quality of his movies, and praises the producer and director for handling him with “kid gloves.”
Producing Hell With Bruce Cohn Curtis (14:10, HD) – Curtis reiterates some thoughts from the commentary while breaking down the production process.
Writing Hell (25:51, HD) – Writer Randy Feldman discusses his inspirations (including the very Hell Night-esque Black Christmas, 1974) and his methods, complete with comparisons between the screenplay and final scenes.
Vincent Van Patten and Suki Goodwin in Conversation (26:53, HD) – The actors chat with each other about casting and their experiences on set.
Kevin Brophy and Jenny Neumann in Conversation (23:01, HD) – Another two member roundtable with two other major cast members.
Gothic Design in Hell Night (22:50, HD) – An interview with art director Steven G. Legler, who details the process of turning attractive locations and bare sets into appropriately creepy settings.
Anatomy of the Death Scenes (21:43, HD) – Feldman, DeSimone, Legler, makeup artist Pam Peitzman, and special effects artist John Eggett, break down each of the film’s murder set-pieces, complete with behind-the-scenes photos.
On Location at Kimberly Crest (6:48, HD) – More from DeSimone’s tour of the main outdoor location.
Trailer, TV spots, and radio spot
Note: I haven’t kept all of the discs I’ve reviewed over the years, so some, like this one, will not include screen-caps. The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray’s image quality.